Did Robert Dudley Murder Amy Robsart?

The Death of Amy Robsart by William Frederick Yeames

According to a report in yesterday’s “Daily Mail”, entitled “Did Elizabeth I’s lover have wife killed so he could wed the Virgin Queen?”, new evidence has been uncovered which supports the theory that Robert Dudley arranged the murder of his wife, Amy Dudley (nee Robsart), so that he was free to marry Elizabeth I.

Amy’s Death

Amy Dudley’s body was found at the foot of the stairs of Cumnor Place in Oxfordshire, on the 8th September 1560. She had been suffering with a “malady in her breast” (breast cancer) and was thought to be dying and Alison Weir, in “Elizabeth, the Queen”, writes of how it is known that Amy was suffering from depression in early September 1560. Weir’s sources for Amy’s depression include a statement from Amy’s maid, saying that she had heard Amy “pray to God to deliver her from desperation”, and the “Leycester’s Commonwealth” tract which tells of how the Cumnor Place household were so concerned that Lady Dudley was “sad and heavy” that they wanted a doctor to prescribe medicine for her.

Whatever, the state of Amy’s health and mind, she was found dead by her servants when they returned from “Our Lady’s Fair” at Abingdon and at the inquest the coroner ruled that Amy’s death was an accident.

New Evidence

Alison Weir writes of how Alvaro de Quadra reported on the 11th September that Elizabeth I had ordered that the news of Amy’s death should be made public, that it was attributed to accidental causes and that Elizabeth had said that Amy had broken her neck and “must have fallen down a staircase”. However, the original coroner’s report had been found and it does not mention a broken neck!

Historian Steven Gunn, a lecturer at Oxford University, found the coroner’s report in the National Archives while searching through 16th century accident records. According to the report, Amy’s head had two deep wounds caused by two impacts and even though there were no signs of other injuries, whcih one would expect if Amy fell down a flight of stairs, the coroner ruled that Amy’s death was the result of “misfortune”. Gunn copied this report to historian Chris Skidmore who reveals it in his new book “Death and the Virgin” (released on the 25th February 2010), and is quoted in the Sunday Times newspaper as saying “At the very least it [the coroner’s report] casts doubt on the accident theory”.

Did Dudley Blackmail the Jurors?

Skidmore has also uncovered evidence to suggest that Robert Dudley may have attempted to “nobble” jurors to cover up Amy’s supsicious death and that household accounts show that Dudley gave Robert Smith, a courtier and foreman of the inquest jury, several yards of velvet and black taffeta to make clothes. Skidmore also reveals how Dudley asked that the jury be made up of “discreet” men, that one member of the jury (John Stevenson) was employed by Dudley and that Dudley also paid Anthony Forster, owner of Cumnor Place where Amy died, £310 (around £65,000 in today’s money) shortly after Amy’s death.

Gossip Surrounding Amy, Dudley and the Virgin Queen

Robert Dudley had married Amy Robsart, the daughter of Sir John Robsart, in 1550 and it was said to be a love match and what William Cecil described as “a carnal marriage, begun for pleasure”, rather than an arranged marriage. However, Robert Dudley had always been close to Elizabeth I, having known her since childhood and it is thought that their shared experience of being imprisoned in the Tower of London and Dudley’s time at court, away from his wife, brought the two of them closer and drove Robert and Amy apart. As Master of the Horse, Dudley saw Elizabeth on a daily basis and it was not long before there was gossip about Dudley and Elizabeth, and how much she favoured him.

On the 18th April 1559, the Count de Feria, wrote:-

“During the last few days, Lord Robert has come so much into favour that he does whatever he likes with affairs. It is even said that Her Majesty visits him in his chamber day and night. People talk of this freely that they go so far as to say that his wife has a malady in one of her breasts, and that the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert”

and there were also rumours that Dudley had “sent to poison his wife” (de Quadra) and in early 1560 de Quadra wrote of how Dudley was planning to divorce his wife so that he could be Elizabeth’s consort.

There were also rumours that the Queen had had children by Dudley and a man named Henry Hawkins was punished for saying that “My Lord Robert hath five children by the Queen, and she never goeth on progress but to be delivered.”

However silly or unfounded these rumours, one can only imagine the distress caused to Amy Dudley. Even though she was away from court she must have heard some of these rumours and she must have worried at the closeness shared by her husband and the Queen. No wonder she was described as “sad and heavy” in the late summer of 1560, she was dying and her husband was living it up at court with another woman. Did she believe that her husband was just waiting for her to die?

Theories on Amy’s Death

  • Accident – Alison Weir mentions the theory of Professor Ian Aird from 1956, in which he suggests that Amy’s death could have been an accident caused by a spontaneous fracture of the vertebrae as she walked down the stairs. Professor Aird bases this theory on the fact that breast cancer can cause a weakening of the bones.
  • Suicide – On the day of her death, Amy ordered all of her servants out of the house, giving them permission to go to Abingdon’s “Our Lady’s Fair” for the day. When some of them protested that it was not “fitting” to go to a fair on a Sunday, Amy was said to have been quite sharp with them, asking them to obey her orders. A Mrs Odingsells refused to go, much to Amy’s displeasure, but Mrs Odingsells did eventually retire to her room, leaving Amy alone. Did Amy arrange to be alone so that she could commit suicide, after all, she was said to be very depressed? Amy’s maid said that she wondered if Amy “might have an evil toy in her mind”, in other words suicide.
    In those days, it was believed that suicide was a mortal sin, one that led to eternal damnation, so would Amy have risked her soul to shorten her life? Who knows? Perhaps if she was in enough pain and distress, and felt abandoned by her husband.
  • Murder arranged by her husband – Did Robert Dudley get rid of Amy so that he could marry Elizabeth? See above for Chris Skidmore’s evidence.
  • Murder arranged by William Cecil – This is a theory put forward by Alison Weir. On p108 of my paperback version of “Elizabeth, the Queen”, Weir says:- “One man did profit from the death of Amy Dudley, and that was William Cecil. He was swiftly restored to favour as soon as the news was known and his rival banished from the court, and when he visited Dudley at Kew he did so in the comfortable knowledge that their positions had been reversed and that he now had the upper hand.” His motive for orchestrating the murder was, according to Weir, to stop Elizabeth marrying Dudley and risking her crown and popularity. Suspicion would surround Dudley and Elizabeth would not risk her reputation by marrying him. However, I find it hard to believe that Cecil would have risked the reputation of his beloved Queen for such a plot. I agree with Weir when she says that Cecil was a “perceptive man and he could foresee that if she died in suspicious circumstances, as many people expected her to do, then the finger of suspicion would point inexorably to her husband – as indeed it did. Cecil also knew that Elizabeth , who was very conservative at heart, would be unlikely to risk her popularity and her crown to marry a man whose reputation was so tainted” but I just can’t see Cecil acting on this belief.
  • Murder by an enemy of the Crown – I have to agree with Elizabeth Files visitor, Rochie, and “Virgin and the Crab” author, Robert Parry, who both believe that the most plausible explanation, if it was not an accident, is that it was murder committed by an enemy of Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley. There were many people who were against Elizabeth marrying her Master of the Horse and what better way to stop a future marriage than cause scandal and make Robert Dudley look like a murderer? Dudley had already been surrounded by scandal due to his family’s past and due to him being Elizabeth’s favourite and now they could use Amy’s death to bring him down. Did Mrs Odingsells stay behind on that day because she was an accomplice?
  • An aortic aneurism – A modern theory that Amy was killed by the terminal enlargement of one of the arteries from the heart. Symptoms of this include depression, fits of anger, mental aberrations and pain and swelling in the chest. According to Alison Weir “sudden slight pressure can cause the bursting of the aneurism, bringing instantaneous death”.


What I don’t get is why the fact that a coroner’s report stating that Amy Robsart suffered two head injuries should implicate Robert Dudley. Even the extra “evidence” of him paying the foreman with material and the owner of Cumnor Place does not necessarily mean that he was guilty, he could have simply been paying off debts  and he would have been downright stupid to murder his dying wife! She was ill enough for people to be talking about it so it did appear that she was terminally ill. Surely he would have known that a fall would have looked suspicious seeing as there were already rumours that he was poisoning her. He may have been in love but he still had a brain!

It would be interesting for a pathologist or someone with expertise to look at the coroner’s report and to look at the statements given by Amy’s household and to come up with a conclusion. As someone who does not have any medical knowledge or expertise in pathology, apart from watching CSI or Silent Witness (!), I can’t come up with a solid theory. All I can say is that I don’t believe that it makes sense for either Dudley or Cecil to get rid of Amy and that leaves accident, natural causes or murder by someone unknown.

Anyway, it does sound like Chris Skidmore’s book will be an interesting read but I will take it all with a fairly large pinch of salt!


43 thoughts on “Did Robert Dudley Murder Amy Robsart?

  1. I’m no expert in the above subject despite my enthusiam and curiosity towards English history. I read the Queen’s Pleasure by Brandy Purdy and enjoyed it immensely. Amy Robsart was described as a woman in mortal pain and crippled by her terminal illness of breast cancer, not to mention the mental hell she was enduring from imagining her husband in the Queen’s arms. She had trouble with the simplest movements of rising from a bathtub or chair and the slightest raising of her arm would shoot a rapier-sharp pain through her chest which travelled all the way to her side, semi-immobilizing her. This was a woman who was very, very weak, already at the precipice of death. Walking down the stairs would have been a truly dangerous enterprise, considering she was planning to make her descent independently. Pirto, her childhood nanny, who assisted her in EVERYTHING, wasn’t by her side to ensure Amy’s safety, having been hastened off to the Abingdon Fair.Is it likely that Amy’s knees might have buckled beneath her due to a sudden onslaught of pain that rendered her off kilter, resulting in a tumble down the steps and her misfortune aided in her death by twisting her neck fatally, killing her?

    Would it be too much of a co-incidence that she had to die on a day when there was no one in the house, hence facilitating the stealthy entrance of her would-be murderer to come in and do the deed without anybody to thwart his/her plans or witness a killing. How could her murderer have counted on the fact that Amy would be in a hurry to empty the house of all its inhabitants since only Amy knew of her decision to do so and had even Pirto startled with her order that the old nanny go to the Abingdon fair alone. And I don’t think Mrs Oddingsells would have pushed her down the stairs because being the only person in the house that day, she would surely be implicated. First and foremost, why would Mrs Oddingsells want to kill her? It’s true that she adopted a holier-than-thou approach whenever she confronted Amy but why would she trouble herself by killing somebody whose days were already numbered?

    If Amy were going down the stairs, why would her murderer not want to simply push her and be done with it? Why go through the extra trouble of hitting her head and then shoving her downstairs? Or could she have been clubbed on the head first in her bedchamber and in a feeble attempt to save herself, fled down the stairs and then be betrayed by her body’s fragility resulting in her fatal tumble? Was there a pattern of blood splatter in her bedchamber or on the steps where she breathed her last that would reinforce the very last theory posited above? I am surprised that whoever killed her would go through that much trouble of dealing her two powerful blows to the head and then pushing her down the stairs. This poor woman was one severely depleted of energy, not a giant of supreme strength. How would she resist and fight back even the slightest of assaults? If her assailant wanted her dead, he could have EITHER cracked her skull open OR pushed her down the stairs, but why do both? It doesn’t make sense to me. I believe that if Robert Dudley did indeed want his wife dead, he would have arranged it in such a way that it would resemble a suicide. Two deep impacts to the head scream “foul play” at the top of their voices.

    would resemble a suicide. Two deep impacts to the head scream “foul play” at the top of their voices. Elizabeth was willing to witness a civil war break out over her succession dispute and she still held fast to her decision to never marry. This was one courageous and rebellious queen we are talking about. So even if Dudley had commissioned his wife’s death, I don’t think Elizabeth would have cared about the scandal surrounding Amy’s death if she had truly wanted to wed Lord Dudley. But she was a woman who had grown weary and cynical of love and despite how her heart fluttered at the sight of Robert, her eyes never once wavered from or blinded themselves to the capricious nature of the heart and how easily ambition could supplant any torrent of affection Robert might be feeling for her. It’s most likely that Amy died of natural circumstances, if I were to venture my own personal conclusion. But hence, the two mysterious wounds to the head, which I cannot seem to wrap my head around (no pun intended at all), render my conclusion, inconclusive.

    1. I can’t quite make my mind up either! I think it was a tragic accident, but if it was murder then I don’t believe that it had anything to do with either Cecil or Dudley. Dudley had nothing to gain because he would have known that Amy’s death would cause scandal and Cecil would not have wanted scandal to surround his mistress the Queen, however much he didn’t want her to be involved with Dudley. We’ll never know!

  2. Amy’s personal maid, perhaps the person who knew her best, Mrs Pinto/Picto/Pito did not say that she believed Amy had an evil toy in mind ( suicide ). During questioning, Pinto talked of Amy’s heaviness of soul, or her pain. Pinto had heard Amy praying “god deliver me”etc. The investigator then asked her if because of that, Pinto believed that Amy had an ‘evil toy’ in mind. Mrs Pinto was taken aback, aghast and absolutely denied any such belief. Strenuously, Amy’s closest personal servant ( and they were close in Tudor times ) stated she regretted having said as much as she did, or anything at all that would lead investigators to think such a thing.
    The way the investigation is written sounds authentic; it seems when the ‘evil toy’ idea is brought up to her, it was something she’d never considered.

  3. I have not read the other comments,but it sounds sneakey to me.Suppose Cecil got word to her that he was coming on a certain day,and they needed privacy ,to discuss the situation,then get someone to murder her,thereby stopping the royal wedding and getting himself back into power.
    I know it’s stretching it a bit,but so many dodgey things happened in Tudor times ,that it would not surprise me.

  4. I have always believed it was suicide. If Amy had thrown herself headfirst down a solid staircase she could well end up with two dents in her head (from the bottom treads) and a broken neck. And this would account for any attempt by her husband to put pressure on the jury – they were local men and compassionate so the verdict was Misadventure and not Felo De Se (self-murder). Someone has already pointed out that suicide was contrary to church law – at that date it was believed to be a one-way ticket to Hell – but it would also mean that SHE WAS NOT ENTITLED TO A FUNERAL. Her body would have to be buried without ceremony in unconsecrated ground. This would not just be scandalous and disgraceful, it would also be deeply painful to those who loved her. |Her serving woman’s evidence is psychologically interesting. She admits that Amy had been thinking and praying about suicide but denies she actually did it. Exactly similar in a case of a friend of mine who did commit suicide. Some of our mutual friends went ‘into denial’ and refused to believe it was any such thing. (There was no inquest. We had a tactful and understanding doctor.) Possibly poor Amy thought Hell would be an improvement on her existing situation; perhaps she was just in too much pain & distress to care any more; perhaps she hoped God would be kinder to her than the preachers said He would be…. As for the new gown – some people want to look their best to die. To prepare for their end. Remember, criminals on the way to be hanged at Tyburn wore their best clothes.

  5. From what I have read in The Tudors, Amy was quite ill from cancer.
    (she had a hugh growth between her neck and shoulder). I do no know if they referred to this growth as cancer, however she drscribed it to be quite painful. Doctors gave her what relief they could, but it was very temporary at most. My teeling is that the became so excruciating to bare, that she took her own life.



  6. This interesting discussion has been going on for some years now. Someone wrote : ‘history is more interesting than real life’. Well, I disagree. This history has been real life hundreds of years ago! That makes this story so fascinating.
    My 2 cents: While I think all three possibilities – murder, accident or suicide – can’t be excluded by the known facts, I would think it highly unlikely that Dudley or Elizabeth had a hand in this. Since Amy was dying anyway they had nothing to gain at all but everything to lose by killing her. And if one of them or both really wanted to hasten her death along a bit, wouldn’t the method of choice rather have been something a bit less obvious? So, if Amy was killed – and the two VERY bad head wounds cannot be easily explained with a simple fall ( although it’s possible of course), the question of cui bono arises. As many have stated, Dudley and Elizabeth had no motif at all. But there are plenty of persons who might’ve been less than pleased to see a matrimonial alliance between Elizabeth and Dudley for many different reasons. And they had to act fast, since Amy was mortally ill. I won’t go into all possible suspects behind such an intrigue, but there are many. What about Amy herself, btw? She was dying a very painful death and was abandoned by the man she once loved. Couldn’t she have been full of rage when she pictured him in the arms of the queen, both of them just waiting for her to die? Would she want her husband to become the Queens’s consort after her death? Could she bear this thought? She’s always been described as sweet natured, but she once loved Dudley very much, and who knows how she really felt. She was in a terrible situation. When my aunt was dying from cancer she explicitly said to her husband she wouldn’t mind him to marry again. But there was one woman whom she didn’t want him to marry. She said a name – it was the name of the woman whom she suspected – correctly – to be the mistress of her husband. And he never did. He abandoned his mistress although they’ve had an affair over many years and were clearly in love. My aunt wasn’t a mean person at all. She was sweet and loving. But she felt terribly betrayed. It’s a really tragic but powerful story. Couldn’t Amy have felt the same way? I find the fact that she herself sent simply everybody in the household away somewhat suspicious, considering that she was gravely ill. Wanting to be completely alone for a while is a modern concept IMO. In those days people of Amy’s social standing were used to large households and being waited upon. It was second nature for them to have servants around even in very intimate situations. So, I cannot shake the suspicion that Amy was up to something that day and that she didn’t want witnesses. Maybe she did commit suicide and wanted to make it look suspicious. Or, considering that the method of throwing herself down the stairs wasn’t foolproof at all, she had assistance by someone, who helped to make it look like a suspicious death. This someone simply could’ve bashed her over the head a couple of times after she threw herself down the stairs. Maybe he killed her outright. She wouldn’t have committed suicide, then, and her killer might’ve even regarded it as a merciful act. She could even have gotten approached by a politically interested party, who offered to hasten her death along, thus preventing an alliance between the Queen and Dudley once and for all. Melodramatic, yes. But disguised or assisted suicide would be compatible with all the known facts. Means and motives would’ve been there. Forensics which could’ve disentangled such a scenario didn’t exist at the time. And if the desired outcome was to prevent Dudley once and for all from marrying Elizabeth, it most certainly worked. If I would write a historical novel, I’d certainly go for such a solution.
    Of course nothing short of revealing authentic documents turning up somewhere can be proven anymore. It could’ve been a simple accident. But the two deep head wounds, the sending away of the servants by Amy herself, and the eventual result – that Bess could never marry Robert – a result that pleased many factions, make me think, there must be more to it. And stranger things have been known to happen in those fascinating days.

  7. just seen a programme about this on Nat Geo this morning. ‘Dying’ has been ruled out by the letter to her tailor.No indication of that kind of ill health. Falling was ruled out by the forensic pathologist. So, we are left with head wounds and that indicates murder. Clear as day. I wonder why so much has been said about her being faint and ill and so on. She was 28 and fit. No child, nothing to debilitate her. No indication in her surviving letters that she was terminally ill. Go see the programme, listen to the historians there. They show a different Amy. Just as we now know more about Richard III through discoveries, we have learned more about Amy Robsart through discoveries and I am sure there are many more exciting finds to be revealed.
    Don’t diss Chris Skidmore, if that email had arrived in my box, the finding of the coroner’s report, I would have been over the moon that there was new fresh evidence after all these years.

  8. Hello Dorothy Davies,

    Interesting post of yours. Can you please give me the title of the Nat Geo programme you watched. I would love to track it down, if I can.

    thanks so much

  9. I just saw a show on this on the History Channel, an episode of Medieval Murder Mysteries., where they located the Coroner’s report and it lists two dents (wounds) to the back of her head one being a half inch and another being 2 inches deep. The staircase was supposed to be a small one. It looks like a murder. No witnesses, modern medicine, cc tv, DNA, finger prints etc, easier to get away with it back then, and there were plenty of motives, Dudley’s enemies framing him to get him away from the queen, or he himself could benefit by being free to marry the queen. Suicide? I don’t think you’d bash yourself twice on the back of the head then jump down a few stairs.

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